BMCR 1997.11.16

1997.11.16, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History

, Projecting the past : ancient Rome, cinema, and history. The new ancient world. London: Routledge, 1997. x, 237 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780415906135.

This fascinating book analyzing films, many of them long forgotten, about ancient Rome should be welcomed by both classicists and those interested in the cinema and its historical setting. The book’s numerous illustrations are also valuable, in many cases offering visual confirmation of the text’s theses.

Wyke starts by discussing how cinema is a product of history but also a shaper of history. She introduces us to the major themes of the book, which range from orientalism to national identity to issues of gender and commodities. Her study continues, and in some cases replicates, the work begun by David Mayer in his Playing Out the Empire: Ben-Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films: 1883-1908, A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).

Readers may be put off, as I was, by the style, particularly in the opening passages, as in: “Cinema’s historical narratives of antiquity have worked to interpellate [sic] spectators into their reconstructions of ancient Rome and have left their traces even on the subjectivities of those fascinated spectators. In turn, spectators have read their ‘direct’ contacts with the surviving fragments of ancient Rome as texts in dialogue with cinematic reconstructions of antiquity and other contemporary discursive formations of the Greco-Roman past” (p. 8). The going becomes easier, although jargon still abounds: “Thus the film Spartaco utilizes the musculature of the screened male body to construct a popular historical and national consciousness” (p. 46).

Alas, Wyke is very far from being alone in these stylistic bétises. Let us continue to pray for clarity and freedom from the chains imposed by some of theory’s jargon.

For those of us who teach and write about film and the classics, to say nothing of the general public who want to understand the hidden messages of popular film, the content of Wyke’s book is a treasure trove. She has researched her periods well, and is adept at locating the films she treats in their historical settings.

The second chapter continues the investigation of why we study ancient Rome in film. Romanitas is put in its historical place, both in antiquity and in modern Italy and America. In both countries revolution is followed by imperialism, so two themes compete.

In American films of ancient Rome, villains usually are played by British actors and the heroes by Americans. This we find also in popular American films on Greek themes, Jason and the Argonauts (1963); Clash of the Titans (1981); but now gods and goddesses speak with an English accent while the dashing hero is, as usual, American. Films are now enlisted for and against communism (it is good that Wyke shows us the ambiguity: sometimes the same film is publicized in opposite ways by the different advertisers). Contradictions abound: films praise poverty for its honest values, while expending millions on the production. Some films condemn the debaucheries and tortures depicted while selling the films through those debaucheries and tortures. We are urged to “interrogate films about ancient Rome” by examining “their intersection with the national, political, economic and cultural identities of the communities in which they are produced while, at the same time, exploring the ways such films reformulate those identities in specifically cinematic terms, building up their own historiographic conventions of style, address, and aesthetic pleasure” (p. 32). For the most part, Wyke delivers on her New Historicist double perspective.

Declining to replicate major surveys of films on ancient themes, Wyke explores four case studies: Spartacus, Cleopatra, Nero and the city of Pompeii. One might question the omission of Caesar (except in relation to Cleopatra) and Caligula. Also omitted are the satiric films on Rome, such as Up Pompeii, and The Life of Brian. Nevertheless, each of the chosen themes has a history, showing the type of mythology which can be used to convey different messages. With the theme of Spartacus we are urged to remember the risorgimento revolutionaries with their leader Garibaldi; 1 we are also reminded of French revolutionaries (slaves were shown wearing the liberty cap) and America with its own revolution. Gramsci saw the value of the story of Spartacus for the oppressed masses. Il Duce was more comfortable identifying himself with Caesar and his conquests, and, of course, Scipione l’Africano. The Italian Spartaco reminded Italians of their lands being overrun by the Germans. This Spartacus, suffering like Christ, is identified with people tortured by the Nazis, and the Italian resistance aligned itself with the Communists in the popular imagination.

Howard Fast’s novel was used in the American remake of 1960: he wrote that novel “while incarcerated in an American prison for his allegiance to the Communist Party” (p. 60). Whereas he displayed a certain sensitivity towards women’s rights in his novel, Fast used homosexuality as a mark of the decadent Roman elite, and the final exodus of Spartacus with the freed slaves is an allusion to Zionism (p. 68). One can also construe the House Un-American Activities Committee’s attack on Hollywood’s “Communists” as the oppression one sees in this film. Wyke argues that the film is one “that did not further the cause of the Kremlin so much as hinder it.” She concludes in an idiom that sounds somewhat archaic: “Although it deals with a revolt by slaves against the pagan Roman Empire, the desire for freedom from oppression that motivates Spartacus has its modern counterpart today in areas of the world that struggle under Communist tyranny, and it stands as a sharp reminder for all mankind that there can be no truly peaceful sleep whilst would-be conquering legions stand poised to suppress” (p. 72). Howard Fast might have laughed at the versatility of cultural imperialism. “Communist tyranny” sounds rather anachronistic given the more common form of tyranny now found in the form of dictatorships, as for instance in Africa and Burma.

Wyke gives us a clever history of how men’s attitudes toward women in America are reflected in the evolving representation of Cleopatra. I wish she had analyzed the posters besides the films, because the posters in each instance corroborate her theory. In 1917 Theda Bara (Theodosia Goodman) vamped her way through Fox’s Cleopatra. As Rome had to tame Egypt, these threatening women had also to be tamed. Theda Bara was read “as an anagram of Arab death” (p. 89). It seems ironic that the actress playing Cleopatra is “the daughter of a Jewish tailor from Cincinnati,” whereas in the publicity releases it was “claimed that she was born in Egypt and, as an infant, sucked the venom of serpents” (p. 89). She was frequently depicted in Sphinx-like poses (see poster on p. 88); we had a destroyer here: this vamp took no prisoners. The clear message here is to destroy, cage, or at the least avoid such women.

A tamer Cleopatra emerges as played by Claudette Colbert, shown in the illustration on p. 99. She smiles sweetly at a seated Caesar, and her tight brassiere conveys her bondage. This is the demure woman men liked in 1934. This Cleopatra was used to sell products to “a more homogeneous nation of consumers” (p. 99). Elizabeth Taylor revised this image and emerged as the modern woman of the sixties. In the 1963 remake of Cleopatra, like Cleopatra, Taylor was a husband-stealer, snatching not only Eddie Fisher (a good American Jewish boy married to that paradigm of the girl-next-door Debbie Reynolds), but also Richard Burton (the more sophisticated Brit), her screen Antony. One need only look at the poster (on p. 108) to see the difference from the earlier movies. The men are serving this Cleopatra. They stand at her side and look at her, as she captures the audience in her undominated gaze. She sold a lot of products.

Particularly rich in historical and political detail is the chapter dealing with the history of films about Nero. Nero’s persona is investigated in the religious blockbusters of de Mille and others. MGM’s Quo Vadis shows Peter Ustinov’s Nero as the Antichrist. Note the English accent, whereas the hero Vinicius is, naturally, played by an American actor. Henryk Sienkiewicz’s nineteenth-century novel was the basis for this film. Wyke sees the “innocent Christian child Lygia and her giant defender as representing, respectively Catholic Poland and the Polish people” (p. 117). The oppressors are Germany, Russia and Austria. The two Christian lovers, ex-soldier Vinicius and Lygia, finally escape the terrorism of Nero whose decadence leads to his fall. Petronius can also be seen as Sienkiewicz: the artistic creator who is subject to censorship. In 1905 this book received the Nobel prize for literature (which I see more as the judges’ affirmation of their values rather than the quality of the work per se, something which is often the case with this prize). French racehorses were named after the heroes, and Sienkiewicz’s work stayed for years on the recommended booklist for American university students. Less popular was the heretical and secular Ernest Renan who in his fourth volume Histoire des Origines du Christianisme showed Nero as the Antichrist. Sienkiewicz took over this image of a demonized Nero but put it in a more orthodox setting and the world cheered.

Challenged by the secular risorgimento revolutionaries, the Vatican was helped by Guazzoni’s Quo Vadis? in 1913. Wyke has an interesting picture from that film showing an axe and sickle hanging on the wall, anticipating the Communist hammer and sickle configuration (p. 127). The socialists, along with the church, “had been persecuted by the Liberal government by the repressions of 1898” (p. 126). In this film ancient Rome cedes to Christianity, as indeed it did historically in Italy.

The Roman eagle and the American cross come into conflict. The eagle and the fasces were adopted by Il Duce, also by the Nazis. Wyke notes the ambiguity in that the eagle went on the American dollar and was used on Quo Vadis pyjamas. Of course, the eagle is the national bird of America. But the cross is also given a new meaning, and in a bizarre reprise of de Mille’s In the Sign of the Cross, we see a squadron of American planes arranged in a cross formation at the top of an advertising poster for the film. The caption reads, “You’ve added a glorious chapter, lads, to the greatest story ever told” (p. 136). This ironic linking of a theoretically pacifist religion (“turn the other cheek”) with the war effort is well in line with other religious atrocities committed “in the sign of the cross,” such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. It is amazing that the ad for de Mille’s film did not add in hoc signo vinces—but most Americans cannot read Latin so that would not have helped sales. In the poster we see a seductive Claudette Colbert representing Roman decadence. “Cleopatra” once again stands for demonic woman and Hollywood is devising its own iconography.

There were several biblical epics produced during the fifties, reflecting the Cold War: The Robe (1953); The Ten Commandments (1956); and Ben-Hur (1959). The ideological war against Russia, the evil empire, was now construed in religious terms. The ads for Quo Vadis (1951) say, “What is important is the overall, lasting and certain impression of revulsion against evil and against a dictatorship that denies personal security to everyone and precludes the freedom to worship one’s deity according to the dictates of his own conscience. Quo Vadis is the greater show because without seeming to do it, it draws the great lesson from the past that we never so much needed as in the present” (p. 144).

McCarthyism was going strong, and whereas MGM wanted to show itself as carrying on its own fight against communism, it had an inner message in this film for the cognoscenti : Petronius was himself a victim of Nero’s witch hunt. Pari passu, Hollywood’s assailant Joseph McCarthy would himself fall.

But the main message of these Nero movies was that he could represent any enemy of America: Mussolini, Hitler or Stalin. Still Nero was used as a new cry for selling items to American consumers, such as boxer shorts adorned with Roman swords, and we read the caption, “Make like Nero in Quo Vadis Shorts” (p. 111).

The final theme commemorates the famous eruption of Vesuvius on the 24th of August, A. D. 79, followed by the destruction of Pompeii. Many people construed the destruction of the city as a deserved punishment for misdeeds: “sodoma gomora was found scratched on the wall of a Pompeian dining room” (p. 150). Edward Bulwer-Lytton puts the story of Pompeii’s destruction into the Christian framework in his nineteenth-century novel, The Last Days of Pompeii. The author visited the city, still shocking with its dead mummified in the midst of their lives. In Wyke’s book we follow the story of Glaucus, a man about town, and the pure Ione (both Greek). An evil priest Arbaces also loves Ione, and so he falsely accuses Glaucus of a crime. Arbaces is Egyptian and like Cleopatra, regarded as the corrupt Oriental (Cleopatra was actually Macedonian, but that hardly bothered Hollywood). A devoted blind flower girl, Nydia, rescues her besieged patron Glaucus from the arena itself and escorts him with his beloved Ione to an escaping ship, and then drowns herself. Glaucus and Ione flee corrupt Pompeii converting, of course, to Christianity. They pass their lives in democratic Athens, a contrast to the tyrannical Pompeii, which receives the destruction it deserves. This is a Victorian novel which claims, “The affections are immortal” (p. 153).

Scores of movie makers have yearned to represent this spectacular eruption, from George Méliès in 1900 to the director of Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei in 1959. RKO did an American version in 1935. In the film by Arturo Ambrosio from 1913, the orientalist aspects are emphasized rather than the Christian or Democratic ideas of Bulwer-Lytton. This was in accordance with Italy’s continued dream of empire.

America rewrites the plot of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel and in RKO’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1935) we see “an original story that concerns individual self-discovery, familial responsibility, and personal redemption. Marcus, a hard-working blacksmith, is embittered after the accidental death of his wife and son, and takes up the more profitable (if morally suspect) professions of gladiator and slave trader, but at the moment of Vesuvius’ eruption he learns the Christian values of human life, liberty, and paternal care, and sacrifices himself to aid the escape of his adopted son and some runaway slaves, dying in the comforting glow of a visitation from Christ himself” (p. 173). This was a reaction to, and incorporation of, the gangster movie. Here was a film aimed at moral uplift, which nevertheless featured exciting fights since the hero was a gladiator. The Production Code of 1930 insisted on wrongdoers being punished: a corollary to this is that the wrongdoer can become a rightdoer. Marcus loses his wife and son because he cannot afford the doctor’s fees, and here we see an allusion to the recent depression in America. There is an unhistorical conflation of Marcus witnessing the crucifixion of Christ AND Vesuvius erupting! The sensuality of the earlier films cedes to the appeal of violence and the old romanitas is now shown as fascistic. America associates itself with the Roman Republic, not its imperialism. The film was a flop.

The final chapter is Gibbonian saga: The “Fall of Rome’s Film Empire.” Cleopatra as a good sixties vamp gave the kiss of death to 20th Century Fox the same year of its release in 1963. Godard critiqued the Hollywood “classic” film this same year in his Mépris (Contempt). The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) also failed at the box office. The old clichés no longer worked. Wyke notes that European “art house” films took over in the 60s and 70s with Pasolini and Cacoyannis. She does not mention that they, with the exception of Fellini’s Satyricon (1969; which deals mainly with Greek slaves), are all derived from Greek classics rather than Roman history, nor does she suggest a reason why.

Revivals of the classics have often been used to critique or corroborate regimes or issues. Wyke’s book is a valuable addition to this type of study. Precisely because Wyke’s work is so very suggestive, I would have liked her to go a bit further. Perhaps some discussion of the films on Greek themes, epic, tragedy et al. and the work done on them might have enhanced the book. 2 At least some minimal treatment of this question would have highlighted the particularity of the films on Roman themes.

An answer to the question, Why Rome, not Greece, may be found in one of the main themes of the book, namely imperialism. 3 The English seem to have favored the Romans in their schools, literary allusions and imitations. In a recent spate of reworkings of Greek tragedy, the Irish now deal with themselves as victims of imperialism by appropriating Greek plays: Antigone, Prometheus Bound and Trojan Women (NOT Oedipus, or a play of individual identity but rather the themes of civil rights, freedom and suffering). Though Wyke rightly points out the connection of the Roman films with the empires of modern Italy and America; a contrast with the modern use of Greek tragedy in the modern world would have strengthened her position. For instance, Cacoyannis’Iphigenia drew on the oppression by the Junta, and the crowds that were swarming Athens and controlling politics by mob rule. It is true that some of the Roman films can be construed as condemning imperialism, but the Greek revivals in plays and film are used even more often to do this.

I would also have enjoyed more discussion of some of the aesthetic aspects of the films. I tend to prefer the films made on Greek themes, and think that Cacoyannis’, Godard’s and Pasolini’s films are superior to those made on Roman themes. The former are mainly tragic, whereas the latter routinely conform to melodrama, particularly those on Christian themes: pagan man meets Christian woman, complications, both escape or die, but the man converts. 4 Now with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; Xena: Warrior Princess; and a star-studded Francis Ford Coppola remake of the Odyssey for television, Greek myths are replacing tales of the Roman Empire. Xena certainly touches on questions of gender in its depiction of a modern Wonder Woman (also Greek, with her Amazon origin) who is more liberated and independent than her comic strip predecessor. Antecedent films on popular Greek themes abound, e.g., various versions of the Odyssey, and many Hercules films, among others. Why is Greece fiddling while Rome burns? Are empires fading in light of a new geopolitical unity? Perhaps this is a new book.

Wyke might also have pointed out more of the blatant historical inaccuracies in the films she treats. For instance, the Romans referring to themselves as pagans. At the time when most of these stories took place, the Christians were the outlaws, and the Romans considered themselves followers of the true faith and would hardly call themselves pagans. The inauthentic use of architecture and costumes also might have given a clue to some other political messages (or the budget of the film which would limit research, to say nothing of the materials used).

I also do not think that Wyke need be “disturbed” by Bernard Knox’s defense of the classics in his 1980 address to the American Philological Association. She claims, “Such appeals to the purity, the authenticity and the primacy of Greco-Roman culture have taken an even more dramatic and strident form since classics and the classic have become key components in the educational agenda mapped out by the American New Right” (pp. 5-6), taking Knox’s comments as a rejection of Benjamin’s “high hopes for cinema (and popular culture more generally)” (p. 5). Knox, who fought for the Spanish Republic against Franco and fascism, and has written a laudatory review of Cacoyannis’Iphigenia, is put in the wrong camp. Praising the classics in their original form does not mean that one belongs to the American New Right nor that one is against modern cinematic versions.

Despite these small objections, Wyke’s book is an excellent addition to any library covering film studies, the classical tradition, cultural and gender studies. Maria Wyke has done some fine and entertaining work, and collected priceless illustrations of films on ancient Rome which reveal our modern history.

1. Mayer ( Playing Out the Empire) also makes this point: “The modern parallel to Spartacus, easily understood by Italian audiences, is Garibaldi,whose rebellion helped to create the modern Italian state” (p. 314).

2. Marianne McDonald, Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible (Philadelphia: Centrum, 1983; rpt. Boston: The Greek Institute, 1991); Kenneth MacKinnon, Greek Tragedy into Film (London & Sydney: Croom Helm, 1986); “Cacoyannis vs. Euripides: From Tragedy to Melodrama” in Drama: Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption, 2 (1993) 222-234.

3. Mayer in Playing Out the Empire addresses this issue well, adding, “British colonial administrators spoke loftily of imperium et libertas (p. 9).

4. See Marianne McDonald, “Cacoyannis’and Euripides’Iphigenia : The Dialectic of Power,” Photo Essay, and Interviews with Michael Cacoyannis and Irene Papas, in Martin M. Winkler, ed., Classics and Cinema (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1991) pp. 127-184.